Nine years ago, Nathan Lane went to Chicago with an equally famous co-star and material based on previous comic success in the hope of building a new hit stage musical.
Matthew Broderick was the co-star, "The Producers" was the show, and it won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards to accompany its 2,502 Broadway performances.
Lane is now back in Chicago with another equally famous co-star and material based on previous comic success in the hope of getting history to repeat itself. Bebe Neuwirth is the partner this time, and "The Addams Family" is the familiar fodder being shaped into a Broadway-bound musical.
After several weeks of preview performances, critics were invited to an official opening night performance last week at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre. "The Addams Family" musical is a whole lot of fun.
Those quirky Addamses became household names in the 1960s, when the first pop culture incarnation of them arrived on TV screens, but the family dates back to 1938. That is when cartoonist Charles Addams' initial single panel drawing of the figures appeared in the New Yorker magazine.
Although the musical borrows elements from the popular TV series -- there actually were several series, movies, video games, a pinball machine and commercials for Honda and M&Ms -- it is based on the long string of New Yorker cartoons, which continued to be published until Charles Addams' death in 1988.
That gives the new show's artistic team a wide expanse of creative license, because the cartoonist did not develop or even name his characters. He simply invented the satirical snapshots of a friendly American family delightfully unaware of the strangeness of their taste for the macabre.
Lane plays the Addams family patriarch, Gomez, and Neuwirth is Morticia, his subtly sensuous middle-aged wife, in the musical. The other familiar characters -- daughter Wednesday, son Pugsley, Uncle Fester, servant Lurch and Grandma -- are on the scene in the big old Victorian spook house the Addamses call home.
Book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who also penned the script for "Jersey Boys," moved the residence from is customary Cemetery Lane to New York's Central Park. More importantly, Brickman and Elice introduced a second family into the mix to drive the story and provide conflict.
The Beinekes are straight arrow Midwesterners, and when their son becomes daughter Wednesday Addams' boyfriend, Morticia insists they drop by the house for dinner. That is an opening for the show to become involved in their family dynamics, and they are not nearly as interesting as their hosts. However, the addition of the Beinekes presents an opportunity for the wife to let loose with a show stopping musical number that Broadway veteran Carolee Carmello hits out of the park near the end of the first act.
That defines what this "Addams Family" is all about. Rather than deeply mine the core comic characteristics of the kinky Addams kin, writers Brickman and Elice provide a large canvas for a steady barrage of visual and verbal gags, several memorable tunes in Andrew Lippa's eclectic score, an ingeniously clever stage design, and across-the-board exceptional performances from a sterling cast that begins with the incomparable Lane.
I thought the bombastic actor had hit his peak as Max Bialystock in "The Producers," but Lane's Gomez Addams is wonderfully sublime, an adjective probably never before applied to him. Restraining his tendency to reach inflatable blimp proportions, he exudes a sweet panache.
Throughout the show, Lane's comic engine is always running, throwing off sparks when needed. An eyebrow lift or vocal inflection can do the trick.
"Addams Family" purists, if there are such people, may be disappointed. Theatergoers looking for a good time will be tickled. The show is endlessly playful and displays a wealth of old school savvy disguised as freshness and whimsy.
The primary practitioner of the latter is Kevin Chamberlin's physically commanding Uncle Festus, whose ogre look contrasts so effectively with his plaintive pleas for love. Jackie Hoffman never fails to get a laugh as Grandma, and Krysta Rodriguez's Wednesday convincingly blends Addams family perversity with self-knowing anxiety about her clan.
Neuwirth's Morticia possesses her trademark cool slinkiness. She is likable though not very believable when Morticia suffers mid-life angst.
"The Addams Family" was jointly directed and designed by the unusual artistic partnership of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. It is the first Broadway show for the Brits, and it won't be the last. Sets and scenic pieces appear and disappear with the wondrous fluidity of a turning kaleidoscope.
Chicago performances of "The Addams Family" continue through Jan. 10. Preview performances on Broadway begin March 4, with the opening scheduled for April 8.
The Bard, al fresco: A new Milwaukee theatrical venture calling itself Shakespeare in the Park will mount a free outdoor production of "The Tempest" at Alverno College next summer. Veteran Milwaukee Rep actor Jim Pickering has signed on to play Prospero in the show, which is planned for June 18-27 in the Alumni Courtyard on the Alverno campus.
Ron Fry, the former artistic director of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, will stage the production. Two Alverno faculty members, Tom Reed and M.L. Cogar, are also involved.
A fund raising campaign, called Bard for a Buck, is soliciting persons to donate a single dollar and ask their friends to do the same. Go to optimisttheatre.org and click on the link.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.